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The West Sounds The Alarm On Russia. Ukraine Sends A Different Message: Keep Calm And Carry On.

Although the Kyiv government has been urging people not to panic as Russian troops mass at Ukraine's borders, the country's currency, the hryvnya, has plummeted to a four-year low. (file photo)
Although the Kyiv government has been urging people not to panic as Russian troops mass at Ukraine's borders, the country's currency, the hryvnya, has plummeted to a four-year low. (file photo)

KYIV -- Listen to the message from Washington and other Western governments about the intensifying threat from Russia: An invasion is imminent.

Listen to the head of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council and other officials, including President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and hear a different message: Don't panic, don’t exaggerate.

There's very little disagreement about what is happening on Ukraine's borders: At least 60 Russian battalion-tactical groups, more than 100,000 troops, and some of Russia's most advanced weaponry are deployed frighteningly close. In fact, Moscow has clearly opted against secrecy in what many experts say is a conscious decision to send signals to Ukraine, NATO, and the United States.

But there's disagreement about what it actually means and what the intent may be -- and Ukrainian and Western officials are offering notably different public messages.

"It's a political decision, in the office of the president: 'Don't panic,'" said Andriy Ryzhenko, a retired naval captain and former deputy chief of staff in Ukraine's navy.

"What's the reason for this? If Ukrainian politicians confess that this escalation and this threat exists, economic investors will withdraw their funds, the hryvnya will fall. We are already seeing this, money being withdrawn from Ukraine," he told RFE/RL.

"Ukraine has exactly the same intelligence, the same information as the Americans, as the West," said a former Ukrainian military intelligence officer who asked to be identified by the pseudonym Viktor. "It's all about the interpretation. Our leadership doesn't want people to panic."

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One major reason why the Russian buildup is an open secret is the proliferation of information sources -- such as photographs, videos, train schedules -- that in the past were more confined to classified or top-secret intelligence. Imagery from commercial satellite companies provides high-resolution photographs that can be readily analyzed by millions of amateur and trained sleuths.

And the United States, which is Ukraine's largest supplier of weaponry and military equipment, has been unusually forthcoming in sharing its own sophisticated intelligence: not just with Kyiv but also with European and NATO allies. That's a change from what happened in the aftermath of Russia’s 2014 takeover of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow backs separatist forces.

'No Rose-Colored Glasses'

But for weeks, it has largely been Washington that has sounded the loudest alarms about Russia's deployment -- something that White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki did again on January 25.

"I think when we said it was imminent, it remains imminent," Psaki told reporters when asked about U.S. warnings "But, again, we can't make a prediction of what decision President Putin will make. We're still engaged in diplomatic discussions and negotiations."

Two days earlier, however, Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, pushed back against some of those alarms.

"Why do the other partners do this together? We have some questions here," Danilov told the BBC’s Ukrainian service. "We have great respect for all countries. We are grateful to them for their help, but if something is not there, it is not necessary to say that it is."

And Zelenskiy himself has evinced a Ukrainian version of "keep calm and carry on" in his public statements.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (file photo)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (file photo)

"There are no rose-colored glasses, no childish illusions, everything is not simple.... But there is hope," Zelenskiy said in a video address released on January 25. "Protect your body from viruses, your brain from lies, your heart from panic."

That statement, in turn, appeared to be a response to an announcement two days earlier from the U.S. State Department, which said some U.S. diplomatic staff would be evacuated from Kyiv and urged U.S. citizens to consider leaving Ukraine sooner rather than later.

That announcement, which was followed by similar ones from Britain, Germany, Canada, and Australia, caught the attention of some Ukrainians who had previously been less worried about the prospect of an imminent invasion.

The Ukrainian president had seemed to encourage that lack of strong concern. "What's new? Hasn’t this been the reality for eight years? Didn’t the invasion start in 2014?" Zelenskiy said in another video address a week earlier, on January 19. "Everything is under control. There is no reason to panic."

In a meeting that day with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Zelenskiy also appeared to voice public disagreement with U.S. assessments.

"I think we generally have the same agenda, but we still want to discuss some things in detail, because your intelligence is excellent, but you are far overseas, and we are here, and I think we know some things a little bit deeper about our state," the Ukrainian leader said, according to a State Department transcript.

Representatives for Zelenskiy's office did not immediately respond to a message seeking further comment.

In his BBC interview, Danilov gave a hint of the strategy: "We emphasize this now and articulate to our partners that we cannot afford to let our economy fall. We also need help with this. After all, if people go into a state of panic -- this is a very dangerous situation for the country," he said.

Pugnacious Statements

It's unclear how much those statements are working. The hryvnya, Ukraine's currency, dropped by more than 5 percent over the past three months and hit a new four-year low on January 26, according to the Kyiv Independent.

There are no reports of panic buying in Kyiv grocery stores or other shops, however. Gasoline prices have climbed -- one widely used fuel for cars and trucks is nearly 10 percent more costly than in December -- though that may be due to currency fluctuation. Ukraine imports much of its gasoline and transport fuel from Russia.

To be sure, Zelenskiy has also made more pugnacious statements, specifically about Ukrainian intelligence, that suggest he sees a major Russian threat.

"Ukrainian intelligence has always played an important role in countering external threats. The time has come not only to effectively deter, but also to launch offensive actions in upholding national interests of Ukraine," he said, a statement that raised eyebrows in Kyiv and elsewhere.

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The difference in public statements between Kyiv and the West can be partly explained by more sophisticated U.S. intelligence: U.S. satellites reportedly have resolution that can capture up to less than 10 centimeters on the ground.

By comparison, Ukraine's newest surveillance satellite, launched just a few weeks ago, reportedly has far worse resolution.

The more dire warnings from the United States also appear to be a calculated strategy, said Viktor Andrusiv, director of the Kyiv School of Public Administration.

"What the Americans are actually doing is they are undermining the 'casus belli' from the Russians," he said, referring to the Latin term for an act that provokes or justifies a war. "By creating this hysteria, and saying, 'there will be war, there will be war, there will be war,' they don't give the Russians a cause to make a provocation for the war."

"Because whatever they do, Russia will be recognized as the aggressors, it's a kind of strategy, if Russians do anything to invade, it will be a confirmation," he said. "This undermines the beginning of the war, in a good way."

The downside, Andrusiv said, is that this "hits our economy," potentially causing "economic hysteria" and driving the value of the hryvnya to 100 per dollar. "And then the Russians won't have to invade Ukraine, because the economy will collapse, and we will have big riots."

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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